Sounds of Silence

Speech and language suffer with undetected hearing loss.

Sounds of Silence

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Imagine that your child is trying to have a conversation with you, but instead of looking you in the eye, he is turned around, two steps away, and has plugs in his ears. There isn’t going to be a lot of pleasant banter filtering through that set of barriers. Yet, that is how the audiologist described Jamie Black’s hearing loss to his mother Kristy.

Kristy Black describes her son as a healthy, rambunctious boy, “who tends to have his fingers into everything.” But, when he was about three and a half, she and her husband Mark began noticing uncharacteristic shifts in Jamie’s behaviour.

Jamie seemed unable to speak quietly and needed the volume turned up on the television. But, more noticeable were the changes in his demeanour: “He would have crazy temper tantrums and get so angry and frustrated,” Kristy recalls. “He was arguing with his little brother, being very mouthy with us, and getting very angry over little things.”

A world without sound can be an extremely frustrating place for a child. According to the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network, “Children are at risk of developing social, emotional, behavioural and/or learning problems if speech, language and/or hearing problems are not identified early.”

Audiologist Nav Balsara says that, “the most relevant consequence of late detection and one of the most salient signs of undetected hearing loss is  delayed development of speech and language.”

It is estimated that three to five infants out of 1,000 are born with some degree of hearing loss. In order to catch hearing loss as early as possible, Ontario introduced the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening in 2002. The test involves playing soft sounds through an earphone placed in the infant’s ear while the response of the ear is measured and recorded. The test is safe and comfortable for the baby.

Jamie Black passed his hearing screening, “with flying colours,” says his mom. His hearing loss developed later, after a bout of allergies.

Hearing loss can occur, at any time, for a variety of reasons. A child who once heard normally may, after illness or injury, find that their hearing is suddenly impaired. Young children will have difficulty communicating these issues to parents. Even school aged children may not be the first to realize they are having problems with their hearing.

There are signs that parents and teachers can watch for, says Balsara, including:

  • not being aware of someone out of sight talking at a normal level in a situation with  min-
imal distractions
  • being startled or surprised when their name is called at a normal or slightly louder level
  • asking for repetition, “what” or “huh”
  • close attention to the face and visual cues of the speaker
  • TV volume up louder than would be expected or sitting closer to the TV
  • difficulty responding to voices over the phone when visual cues are absent
  • absent or delayed reaction to loud sounds

The final straw for the Blacks came when Mark realized that Jamie could no longer speak in a whisper. At that point, their family doctor gave them a referral to see audiologist Dr. Roy Braun. Dr. Braun’s assessment revealed that Jamie was experiencing substantial hearing loss. An ear, nose and throat specialist confirmed that Jamie’s Eustachian tubes were clogged. His hearing loss could be corrected, however, with the surgical insertion of tubes, to drain the accumulated fluid.

In the time leading up to the surgery, Dr. Braun had some suggestions to make life easier for Jamie. He told the Blacks to:

  • get Jamie’s attention before speaking to him
  • let him see the speaker’s face and mouth when communicating
  • smile when speaking, to reassure him that elevated voices were not an indication that he was in trouble
  • confirm with him that he heard and understood what was being said
  • et others know about his hearing difficulties, so they could adjust their communication with him.

Since his operation, Jamie’s hearing is fully restored and his behaviour and temperament have returned to normal. After his surgery, Kristy recalls seeing Jamie in the recovery room, “I started to talk to him. He looked at me and said, as only a four-year-old could, ‘Mum, you’re shouting!’”

“I’m not one for tears,” Kristy says, “but I’m not ashamed to say that with that one sentence I cried.”

These days, Jamie is enjoying success in his French immersion studies, is outgoing and thrives on interaction with his friends. “We are so lucky that fixing this was this easy,” Kristy says.

If you suspect that your child is struggling with hearing loss, visit the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists website at for more information or to find a professional in your area.

Author: Jennifer Routledge

Jennifer Routledge is a freelance writer and mom;

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